Let’s Be Movie Stars

With starring roles in one of TV’s hottest shows (New Girl) and a hilarious new movie (Let’s Be Cops), Jake Johnson & Damon Wayans Jr. have Hollywood at their feet. Meet the new Kings of Comedy.

“Let it ride!” shouts Jake Johnson, leaning over a blackjack table at Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood, on the south side of Los Angeles. He flashes an impish what-the-hell look at his colleague and close friend Damon Wayans Jr. and nudges a towering stack of blue and yellow chips forward while a crowd of onlookers clamor their approval. Generally, Hollywood Park’s musty casino floor is where hope goes to take an extended nap, but Johnson and Wayans are on a hot streak, and their energy has sparked the room from its slumber. Johnson downs the rest of his Jack and Coke and swivels around to slap hands with a couple of casino regulars who’ve come over to see what the ruckus is all about. “Come on,” he cries. “Let’s do this!”

The dealer flips cards around the table. Wayans has 15, Johnson has 16, and the dealer shows a 2, with her hole card a mystery. A young guy to Johnson’s right takes an ill-advised hit and goes bust. Wayans looks to Johnson for advice and Johnson shakes his head slightly, telling him to hold, and then holds tight himself. “That’s right,” murmurs one of the regulars, perched close behind. Here’s the moment of truth—if the dealer turns up a couple of face cards, everyone wins; if not, Johnson and Wayans have flushed a few hundred bucks down the drain. A hush falls over the crowd as the dealer reaches for her hole card and turns up a red queen. Now at 12, she’s forced to hit, and slowly turns up the next card—another red queen—el busto! The room erupts in wild whoops of joyous celebration. 

Wayans trades high fives with the other winners at the table, while Johnson fist-bumps the guy behind him and turns back to sweep up his winnings. 

Wayans elbows his friend, grinning. “Good call, dude.” 

Johnson nods. “Life is good.”

Remarkably, as Johnson, 36, and Wayans, 31, wind their way through the casino—the poker tables, the sports book, the bar, the all-night diner—they’re bothered by almost no one. It may be that a casino in South Central L.A., full of tourists and hard-nosed locals, is not a hotbed for fans of New Girl, the hit Fox show featuring ZooeyDeschanel that helped establish Johnson and Wayans as stars. But there’s also something about the vibe they radiate—not Hollywood types preening for the camera, but just a couple of buddies out on the town, chopping it up, trying to make each other laugh—that deflects attention. 

If they stand out, it’s because they’re dressed like members of the Rat Pack, amid a sea of sweatpants and fanny packs. Still, they hardly draw a second glance as they steer their way back toward the blackjack tables for another go-round.

That’s all likely to change very soon. Having already won over viewers on one of TV’s hottest comedies, their new action-comedy caper, Let’s Be Cops, a raw, rollicking romp that recalls ’80s hits like Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon, opens in theaters nationwide this month. Johnson and Wayans play a pair of old friends who’ve rounded the bend into their early thirties without making a dent in their chosen careers: Johnson is a former college quarterback derailed by injury, while Wayans, who dreams of becoming a video game designer, is held down by self-doubt and a soul-crushing boss. The two men are close to throwing in the towel on big-city life and retreating to their Ohio hometown. On a lark, they hit a costume party dressed as cops, and after being mistaken for real cops, soon get drunk on the power of wearing badges and uniforms. When they get mixed up with a gang of gunrunners and drug smugglers, they must put their skills as fake cops to the test.

According to Johnson, the movie has been “blowing the roof off” at test screenings, and that’s no surprise—he and Wayans anchor a cast of comedy all-stars, including Rob Riggle (SNL, The Daily Show), Keegan-Michael Key (Key and Peele), and smart, sexy Natasha Leggero. Like the Jump Street reboots (which share a hard-R rating), Let’s Be Cops weaves action set pieces deftly with authentic, character-based humor, while offering a fresh twist: a buddy cop flick about guys who aren’t really cops.

Dressing up as LAPD felt “badass,” Johnson says. He mentions Nick Miller, his character on New Girl, who can be painfully indecisive. “I’m actually an act-first, think-second kind of person, so it was nice to finally play a character who gets in trouble for his actions rather than his lack of action.”

“To me,” Wayans says, “the message of the film is that you should never write yourself off. You should never tell yourself, ‘Oh, I didn’t make it by now—I should just give up.’ ” 

Johnson chimes in: “It doesn’t matter if you get a late start. You just need to get started.”

Johnson speaks from experience—he was a bit of a late starter himself. The Chicago native dropped out of school in 10th grade (“mostly to smoke cheeba,” he says), and worked full-time for an uncle making neon signs. After a year of “being a loser,” he returned to high school and went on to study theater at the University of Iowa and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. By age 26, though, he was back in Chicago, trying to figure out his next move.

That’s when a friend in L.A. promised him a job—working at the Hollywood Park Casino. (It’s no accident that Johnson has requested this location for the day’s shenanigans.) “I had this old lime green Hyundai Accent that I’d bought from a friend of my dad’s,” Johnson recalls. “I put on a tape of Elton John’s Greatest Hits and headed west.”

But in Cali, Johnson found himself living in a Hollywood dump, working a graveyard shift at the casino, and partying way too much. He wanted to work his way into film and TV, but after a year the only role he’d landed was in a Tampax commercial. Then he met Erin, the girl who would eventually become his wife. “She kicked my ass and got my head in the game,” Johnson explains. “She pointed out that I was an actor without a head shot, just hanging out in bars.”

Erin hooked him up with a catering job, which was a step up; at least he was no longer working nights and could make it to auditions. Soon, little breaks came, partly through partying with friends. One night, boozing hard with pal Derek Waters, Johnson tried to explain the crazy story of soul singer Otis Redding’s death. “I was so drunk, it took me 45 minutes to tell that story,” Johnson confesses with a smile. His wobbly storytelling became the inspiration for a Web series called Drunk History, which featured cameos from laugh titans Jack Black and Will Ferrell, among others, and eventually blossomed into a popular Comedy Central show.

Johnson nabbed blink-and-you’ll-miss-me roles in an Ashton Kutcherrom-com and Russell Brand’s Get Him to the Greek. Then one day he was called in to audition for a new show about a bunch of guy roommates and a girl who moves in with them, which someone had described as kind of an updated version of Friends. Johnson laughs: “I had no idea what I was getting into.”

Soon, bigger movie roles came his way. He starred in Drinking Buddies, a thoughtful indie set in a Chicago brewery, where he played the love interest of both Anna Kendrick and Olivia Wilde (poor guy); director Joe Swanberg encouraged Johnson and his costars to guzzle real beers on set. Next, Johnson played a magazine writer investigating an oddball (Mark Duplass) who claims he can travel through time in Safety Not Guaranteed, which became an unexpected hit.

Johnson and Wayans had hit it off on the set of New Girl, and when they were offered the chance to costar in Let’s Be Cops, they called each other to discuss it. “I told him, ‘I’m in if you’re in,’ ” Wayans remembers.

Johnson couldn’t wait to team up. “Some actors seem cool,” he says, “but when you really get to know them, you realize you’re not on the same page. They just want to be stars, and working with them can be unbearable. Damon and I, we’re not worried about being the biggest stars; we just want the project to work. If we make something great, we know we’ll both end up looking good.”

While Let’s Be Cops is Johnson’s first headlining role in a studio film, he says there’s no pressure. “It’s got a big-budget feel but was made for not that much. I mean, look, they hired me and Damon instead of big movie stars, so they saved themselves some money right there. This isn’t X-Men. It’s more like The Little Engine That Could.

If Johnson and Wayans felt pressure surrounding the film, it was during production. On set, they estimate, as much as 90 percent of the dialogue was improvised. Each night, together in one of their hotel rooms, they pored over the script, riffing off each other and challenging each other to conjure up new and improved material. Johnson learned to rely on his costar’s humor barometer to measure the success of his jokes. “If everyone around us is laughing but Damon says, ‘It was just all right,’ then I get pissed off because I know he’s right and we’ve got to do it again. If no one’s laughing, but I hear Damon laughing, I know I’m onto something. We’re a team, and I trust his voice above anyone’s.”

For Wayans, the shoot’s most harrowing moment came during a scene in which he has to tackle a naked sumo wrestler who’s burglarizing a hardware store. “I had junk in my face!” Wayans cries, spooked by the memory. “I mean, I was looking right up his butt—I could see out his mouth!” 

Johnson finds this absolutely hilarious.

“In the movie, those are his real balls, right?”

Wayans explains that an early cut of the film actually included them, but they had to be enhanced later with CGI.

“Thank God for small balls,” he says, laughing and shaking his head. “They would’ve been rolling around all over my forehead. Can you imagine? Scarred for life!”

Back when Johnson was still puffing weed in his uncle’s neon workshop, dreaming of Hollywood, Wayans was already immersed in showbiz; as a kid, he would hang out with his dad, Damon Wayans Sr., on the set of the pioneering sketch comedy show In Living Color, created by uncle Keenen Ivory Wayans, and featuring family members Kim, Shawn, and Marlon Wayans, plus their friends Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, and Jennifer Lopez. Surrounded by some of the funniest people in the industry, Junior—no big surprise—developed an itch to be onstage, with plenty of talent to burn.

But the one guy he could never impress was his dad. “He was like a hard-ass soccer coach,” Wayans explains. “Total ball buster.”

At 23, Junior started doing stand-up comedy, and a couple of years later joined his dad on tour. “There was one Def Comedy Jam where I really killed and got a standing ovation,” Wayans says. “I came offstage and was feeling great.” His dad asked him, How do you think you did, son? “Knowing him, and his level of expectation, I toned it down—I didn’t want to seem cocky. So I was like, ‘I don’t know…eight and a half?’ He just shook his head and said, ‘Seven,’ and walked off.”

Even as the son found success in likable TV roles—Brad Williams on Happy Endings and Coach on New Girl—he never earned his dad’s raves. “He’d toss me a compliment here and there, but he’d never really give it up,” Wayans says. “He’d just be like, ‘That’s pretty good, man.’ Super low-key. I figured that was the most I’d ever get out of him.”

A few months ago, though, Wayans Sr. joined Junior and Johnson in San Francisco for a few advance screenings of Let’s Be Cops. “The lights came up, and something in him had shifted,” Wayans says. “After all these years, he finally started saying all these nice things. He was like, ‘That shit’s really funny!’ Of course, he’s still my same old dad, so he had to tell me about a couple corny parts, too, but at the end of the night, we were all back at the hotel drinking Champagne, and he said, ‘You know what? You did good work.’ ”

Back at the blackjack table,Johnson starts chatting with one of the casino regulars who’d cheered him on earlier, a guy from the neighborhood named Ivory Nims, a former gangbanger with the Inglewood Crips. Despite his criminal past, Nims seems like a pretty nice dude, and at 31, he’s not so different, ultimately, from the characters Johnson and Wayans play in Let’s Be Cops: He has dreams of buying a Lincoln Town Car and becoming an Uber driver but doesn’t quite have the know-how, initiative, or scratch to pull it off. Johnson and Wayans chop it up with Nims, taking pleasure for a while in getting to know a stranger who’s not a superfan and has no agenda. Soon the pals are moving on, but as they continue to test their luck with the cards, Nims’ girl slips away with a scrum of photographers.

“Damn,” says Nims. “The camera leaves, and my girl disappears.”

Johnson claps him on the back: “Welcome to Hollywood.”  

Soon, the buddies are in a booth drinking beers and doing their best to crack each other up, which seems to be their constant M.O. Eyeing an ancient shoeshine man, they dive into a lengthy riff, imagining that his presence here has preceded the casino’s construction, that it was actually built around him. They imagine the conversation that might be taking place at a neighboring table, filled with elderly Japanese tourists. Johnson even goes into a bit about a secret tryst he’s having with Wayans’ dad (“You’d be surprised how much he loves chocolate-covered strawberries!”); Wayans burns him a look, but he can’t help laughing.

There’s one idea that’s funnier to them than any of the others: the thought of sharing a dramatic scene where both of them are asked to genuinely cry. “We’ve got to put it in our next contract!” Johnson says gleefully. “One unabashed, nonironic crying scene!” 

For both, the hope is that Let’s Be Cops leads to more movies together. With their engaging personalities, heartfelt performances (even in a comedy), and superb chemistry on and off the screen, it’s easy to imagine the film dealing their careers a royal flush. Perhaps a movie about fake cops will turn Johnson and Wayans into real movie stars.

“I don’t want to be one of those actors who go from one project to the next,” says Johnson. “I’d like to do big movies here and there, a couple smaller indies, and also take time off to enjoy life.” With his friend Joe Swanberg, Johnson just cowrote and starred in an upcoming indie called Digging for Fire, based on a real-life experience: Digging a garden in their backyard a couple years back, Johnson and his wife discovered human bones and a gun. The movie imagines what might have taken place. “Working with friends is what it’s all about,” Johnson says. “Damon and I, we’re pretty much the same guy. We’ll never be those serious actors with black turtlenecks doing Shakespeare in the Park. We just want to keep doing fun stuff that we believe in.”

Wayans nods in agreement. “One thing I learned from watching my dad was the importance of putting in hard work,” he says. “Every day I try to learn something and improve my craft.” With his downtime between acting and performing gigs, Wayans also likes to practice martial arts—muy Thai and tae kwon do. “I also want to get better at cards,” he says. “But this was definitely my best visit ever to a casino. Usually I play five hands, lose ’em all, and go broke.”

For his part, Johnson is leaving his old stomping grounds a few hundred bucks ahead. “I think I’ll buy a gift for my wife,” he says, trading his chips in for cash. The lime green Hyundai he used to drive when he first landed in L.A. and worked at the casino is long gone. His ride now: a shiny black Lexus SUV. He hops in and heads for the gate. Wayans gives him a wave. “Drive safe, man,” he calls. “And if you get pulled over, just tell ’em you’re a cop.” 

Photos by Ture Lillegraven